Game Review #070: Solar Flux (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: John B.
Developer: Firebrand Games Publisher: Firebrand Games Category: Puzzle, Strategy Release Date: 12.11.18
Buy Solar Flux from the Nintendo eShop here.
From developer Firebrand Games comes Solar Flux, a deceptively simple physics-based puzzle game about using a donut-shaped spaceship to rekindle dying stars. It will test your strategic planning, critical thinking, and just a little bit of your dexterity with its touchscreen control scheme. It’s a finely designed game, with hours of content to last you a while.
Gravity is the Situation
The stars are slowly dying; and some are dying quickly. And some are overloading. It’s up to you and your trusty drone ship to save the day. Each level starts with your drone docked in a launcher; you aim the ship until it is aimed the way you want and release it. It will fire in a straight line until it is either drawn into orbit around a planet, you fire your thrusters to move its trajectory, or in some cases the star you are attempting to save will emit a pulse, pushing you back. It won’t change your direction immediately; the momentum of your ship will curve your trajectory for a while before you straighten out, so being able to anticipate the curve of your turn is a must. I had a hell of a time with it, myself.
The goal of each level is to collect the plasma orbs scattered around each level and fire them at the star you’re trying to save. If you fire an orb at another orb, they will combine and continue on the trajectory of the one you fired. Whenever you fire orbs into the star it emits a pulse, which knocks you off your path. Many puzzles are made easier by riding the pulses to save fuel. Most of the time the star has a set activity percentage and a corresponding number of orbs on the level to rekindle it. For example, a star with 70% left will have three orbs on the level, as each orb restores 10% to the star. Some stars decay during the level, and so have more orbs than you might use. You have to collect and deposit enough plasma orbs to get the star back to 100% before the counter reaches zero.
Fueled Up and Shielded
Solar Flux also features resource management aspects beyond plasma orbs. Your ship has a fuel gauge and heat shields that you have to ration and monitor, respectively. You use fuel whenever you fire your thrusters; run out and the level ends, even if you could still win based on where your trajectory carries you. Your heat shields deplete whenever you’re in the heat fields of the star. Taking refuge in the shadow of a planet or asteroid will replenish your shields, but don’t take too much time; some levels reward you based on how quickly you finish. If you run out of power for your shields, it’s game over.
Save Stars, Get Stars
Every level ends with a reward of one to three stars being awarded based on your performance. Each level judges you based on different criteria; some levels require you to have a certain level of fuel left (usually 100%) to get all three stars, some judge you based on the time it took you to finish, and some are based on the level of your shields. Obtaining enough stars opens up bonus levels, and is more generally just a point of pride. Manipulating the physics of the game was pretty hard (for me, anyway), and getting all three stars was like an acknowledgment that I wasn’t so dumb after all. You get one star just for finishing, but I don’t need your millennial participation pity trophy, man. I have my dignity. And one star.
Odd Controller Configuration
Solar Flux can be controlled either with a controller or by using the Switch’s touchscreen in undocked mode. While you’re docked, you can only use a controller. When you’re undocked, however, the game defaults to touch controls. It will not recognize inputs from attached Joycons, but if you use a wireless or wired Pro controller or detached Joycons you’ll be fine. I’m not sure why the developers chose not to recognize docked Joycons; it makes playing the game on the go a little awkward. I personally prefer using controllers over touchscreens, so I found it pretty inconvenient to play the game undocked.
A Touchy Subject
The touchscreen control scheme is often inconvenient. The kickstand on the Switch is not sturdy enough to support the pressure needed to interact with screen, so you have to use one hand to hold and one to play. This often leads to a situation where your hand is covering a good portion of the screen unless you can contort it into an unnatural position. Switching hands takes too long in most puzzles, so you just have to live with losing visuals or holding your hand in an awkward or uncomfortable position. It probably works great on phones with their smaller screens, but on the Switch’s relatively large portable screen it makes visibility and comfort an issue.
In addition to these concerns, the touch controls can be a little bit finicky if you use a screen protector. This isn’t the game’s fault, I guess, but I know a lot of people (myself included) like to use a screen protector to prevent scratching, or just to keep their screen in good shape. The menus in particular are difficult to navigate with a protector on; the game very frequently misread a tap as a drag in menus, meaning I had to tap things ten or fifteen times before what I was tapping would open. Once I took the screen protector off, everything worked perfectly, so I am certain that the protector was the problem.
The Majesty of Space
Solar Flux is a remarkably good-looking game. The graphics are very sharp and beautifully rendered. The high-definition starscapes are as visually arresting as any photos from NASA’s satellites of faraway nebulae. Everything does start to look a little monotonous after a while, however. Planets, asteroids, and stars all use the same few models, with only a change in color to differentiate them. Many games make use of reskinned assets, so it’s not like Solar Flux is unique in that respect. However, many games also have animations or other activity to keep the visuals looking lively, whereas Solar Flux has a decided lack of visual excitement. So, while everything is sharply detailed and very pretty to see at first, after a few levels the gild comes off. The music is slow and reflective; a good match for a game that requires as much thought and planning as Solar Flux does.
Solar Flux has its pros and it cons. The gameplay is solidly designed and the puzzles require a great deal of skill and planning to solve, but they feel largely the same after a while. Each new block of levels introduces one or two new tricks, but that isn’t enough to keep things fresh. It’s a good game to play for a few levels at a time, but isn’t ideal for binge gaming. The graphics are gorgeously rendered, but again, a lack of variety limits the longevity of the game. Still, the care and effort put into the game are evident, and despite whatever flaws I found, I left the game with a positive impression.
Final Score: 7/10
Buy Solar Flux from the Nintendo eShop here.
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*Review Code Provided By HomeRun PR